Daring to imagine an energy future that’s unlike our past

Future Energy System

Two years ago, when we walked into a pub in Old Street to chat with Forum for the Future about creating a virtual power station, we had no idea we’d end up convening a project to challenge the fundamentals of how our energy system works – called the Living Grid.

Our early conversations were all about reducing our reliance on fossil fuelled generators, and proving the potential of demand-side management to revolutionise our energy grid.  But it turns out, when you mix inspiring conversations with businesses, universities, government bodies, local authorities, community groups, start-up technology providers, industry associations and everyone in between with a standing-room-only presentation from Michael Pawlyn, you end up with an initiative that questions every aspect of how our energy system is designed.

Why limit the conversation to the role of sophisticated, demand-side technologies. If our goal is an energy system powered by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, we must look at the capabilities, interactions and design of every aspect of the system and question whether it has to be this way, or whether there is a better, alternative approach – and we must unleash our imaginations to do it.  The Living Grid has become a community of people and organisations who are deliberately challenging the beliefs we hold about our energy future, to open up solutions to us that are simply not possible using the same thinking that created our fossil-fuel powered grid.

“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing.  Not so with technology.”  E.F. Schumacher

The Living Grid is provoking us to look beyond carbon reductions at the mismatch between our human energy system and the wider, living energy system that’s evolved here over the last 3.8 billion years of life.   Rather than cycle solar energy through a closed-loop, cooperative system – as other life forms do around here – our linear, centralised grid releases energy into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, wasting it rather than recapturing it. ‘What it would take to make our alien energy system part and parcel of nature again? 

As founding technology partner, Open Energi is proud to have helped bring the Living Grid into existence with our customers Aggregate Industries, Sainsbury’s, Tarmac and United Utilities.  As the Living Grid grows, we’re pleased that other organisations who share its vision, such as Smartest Energy, are getting involved to usher-in the next stage of development. This next next phase is starting with a global, online conversation to reimagine our legacy grid.  Are you curious about how nature would design our energy system?  Join the debate here.

The Living Grid is a project convened by Forum for the Future.  To find out more about the Living Grid and how you could get involved please contact: g.adams@forumforthefuture.org or h.hauf@forumforthefuture.org


Can a sharing economy approach to energy deliver a more sustainable future?

Sunshine through tree tops - green energy

As global demand for electricity grows, are there alternatives to building more power stations which make smarter use of existing infrastructure? And in an industry renowned for high levels of consumer mistrust, could an Airbnb of energy finally deliver a consumer-centric energy market?

Technology is shaping our lives like never before, making our world smarter, more efficient and more connected. In the last decade, it has fuelled an explosion of sharing economy business models — adopted by the likes of Uber, Airbnb and Zipcar — who in just a few short years have revolutionised established industries. But can a sharing economy approach help to tackle one of man-kind’s greatest challenges and deliver clean, affordable and secure energy to all?

Sharing economies are a consumer-led phenomenon which work by exploiting excess capacity or inefficiencies in existing systems for mutual benefit. Take Airbnb for example. The wasted asset is your property and the excess capacity is the space you are not using. By creating a user-friendly platform and giving homeowners the security they need Airbnb have built the biggest hotel chain in the world, surpassing the Intercontinental Group in less than four years. They have achieved this because they haven’t needed to construct a single thing.

So how could this apply to the energy industry? As global demand for electricity grows, are there alternatives to building more power stations which make smarter use of existing infrastructure? And in an industry renowned for high levels of consumer mistrust, could an Airbnb of energy finally deliver a consumer-centric energy market?

Since the world’s first power station was built in 1882 the global energy system has worked on the basis that supply must follow demand. Consumers — businesses and households — have been passive users of power, paying to use what they want when they want, whilst electricity supply has adapted to ensure the lights stay on. This has created inefficient systems built for periods of peak demand — in the UK this is typically between 4–7pm on a cold winter evening — which most of the time are massively underused.

But this is no longer the case. Today, our ability to connect and control anything from anywhere means we can manage our demand for electricity in previously unimaginable ways, and consumers are emerging as a driving force for change.

By connecting everyday equipment to a smart platform (just as you might upload your property to Airbnb), it’s now possible for consumers to take advantage of small amounts of “flexible demand” in their existing assets and processes — be it a fridge, a water pump, or an office air con unit — and sell it to organisations tasked with keeping the lights on — like National Grid.

Applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to govern when and for how long assets may respond gives consumers confidence their equipment’s performance will not be affected, and in return for sharing their “flexible demand”, they benefit from cost savings or direct payments.

This sharing economy approach relies on the power of tech and our ability to orchestrate many thousands of consumer devices at scale. Any one piece of equipment can only make small changes to the timing of its electricity consumption — e.g. delaying when a fridge motor comes on for a few minutes during a spike in electricity demand at the end of a football match — but collectively, the impact is transformational.

It means that when electricity demand is greater than supply, we don’t need to fire up fossil-fuelled power stations. Instead, we can reduce demand by asking non-time critical assets to power down for a short while.

If the wind is blowing and too much electricity is being supplied, we don’t need to let this clean, abundant power go to waste, but can ask equipment to shift its demand and make use of this power as it is available.

And we don’t need to keep building more power stations to meet occasional peaks in demand. Instead, we can distribute demand more intelligently throughout the day, reducing the size of these peaks and making better use of existing capacity.

In the UK, Open Energi’s analysis suggests there is 6 gigawatts of peak demand which can be shifted for up to an hour without impacting end users. Put into context, this is equivalent to roughly 10% of peak winter demand and larger than the expected output of the planned Hinkley Point C — the UK’s first new nuclear power station in generations.

This doesn’t make it easy. Unlike other sharing economy success stories, energy is a public good. The need for incredibly robust solutions means the barriers to entry are high. But, if we can get it right, the prize is enormous; a cleaner, cheaper, more secure energy system which gives consumers control of how, when, and from where they consume their energy.

Businesses have already recognised the power they hold and the benefits it can bring, with the likes of Sainsbury’s, Tarmac, United Utilities and Aggregate Industries adopting the tech and demonstrating what’s possible. Households look set to follow, but wherever the flexibility comes from, it’s clear that consumers and the environment will benefit from a sharing economy approach to energy.

David Hill is strategy director of Open Energi. He is an expert on electricity markets and demand-side flexibility, including demand-side response and energy storage. He joined Open Energi in 2010 after completing an MSc Energy, Trade & Finance at Cass Business School.

Transforming the UK’s energy future

Transforming the UK’s energy future

The UK is at a pivotal moment for investing in the future of its energy system. Two thirds of its power stations – mostly old coal, nuclear and gas-powered stations – are expected to close by 2030, increasing the risk of ‘brownouts’ and ‘blackouts’ in future.

A recent survey by the MEUC  found that nine out of 10 UK businesses are worried about the security of their energy supply. From businesses to households, our large and small energy consumers urgently need reassurance that our energy system is not only able to cater to growing demand, but is also ready for future challenges.

Our energy infrastructure was designed for a post-war world whose power sources were dominated by fossil fuel generators. It is linear, centralised and designed for passive, one-way distribution. Its static nature makes it unable to cater to overlapping demand: energy generation and pricing skyrocket during peaks in demand, stretching the system to its limit. Then as demand drops, or when renewable energy surges through the system, much of that electricity is wasted.

It’s clear we need to move beyond this wasteful, cumbersome system, and thanks to internet-enabled technologies, we can do so. Both the National Infrastructure Commission  and Ofgem  say that more flexible patterns of demand would reduce energy waste, make the system cheaper and more carbon efficient to run, and lowering consumers’ bills.

Harnessing the power of demand response

Businesses now have a unique opportunity to move away from polluting energy sources to help the UK achieve its carbon reduction targets, whilst being rewarded with new revenues at the same time.

The potential for demand response is huge: according to the National Infrastructure Commission’s Smart Power report, if just 5% of current peak electricity demand is met by demand-side response, our energy system would be £200m/year cheaper to run, and end-users could benefit by up to £790m.

This is the inspiration behind the Living Grid, a movement led by forward-thinking organisations and convened by Forum for the Future, to create a new approach to our energy system that is interactive, self-balancing and adaptive rather than linear and clumsy. This will not only help the grid cater better to peaks and troughs in demand and supply, but also enable it to make full use of renewable energy sources.

In the first phase, using smart technology provided by founding technology partner Open Energi, businesses’ appliances are upgraded to become part of an intelligent network that helps to balance supply and demand on the grid in real-time. Making tiny, second-by-second adjustments to their electricity use, they help to free up power at peak times or consume more when there’s energy surplus, benefitting the system as a whole.

By playing an active role in balancing supply and demand, pioneers of the Living Grid are rewarded by the National Grid’s Firm Frequency Response Market with additional revenue that they can reinvest in more energy efficiency measures.

Companies leading the change

To date, supermarket brand Sainsbury’s, building materials manufacturers Aggregate Industries and Tarmac, and water company United Utilities are part of the Living Grid’s network. Together, they are projected to free up 39MW of energy capacity by 2020, equating to almost 90,000 tonnes of carbon savings for the UK.

Sainsbury’s is the first supermarket to use Open Energi’s intelligent demand response technology on over 2,300 pieces of HVAC equipment at 200 stores. Sainsbury’s is now trialling refrigeration, and by 2020 it expects to free up 14MW of flexible power for National Grid, creating 31,865 tonnes of carbon savings per year.

Over the past 3 years, Aggregate Industries has connected its bitumen tanks and pumps at over forty asphalt plants and quarry sites UK-wide. Likewise, Tarmac is rolling out the technology to 70 Asphalt plants and over 200 bitumen tanks at sites across the UK.

United Utilities was the first water company in the country to implement Open Energi’s intelligent demand response technology. It has now connected equipment at over 10 of its larger wastewater treatment plants, and aims to activate more sludge plants and evaluate new processes that would work well with the technology. By 2020 it expects to earn up to £5m from Demand Response.

Not only will participating organisations become more resilient to future energy challenges, they will also demonstrate climate change leadership by unlocking massive carbon savings for the UK. With assets upgraded to automatically and invisibly manage energy consumption, they are at the forefront of opportunities to earn revenue and save energy through the use of new technologies.

Joining the movement

The Living Grid needs more pioneering organisations and technology partners to grow and scale up the transformation of the energy system. It aims to recruit 20 organisations by 2020 to free up 200MW of energy capacity. Through businesses acting together, it will show how demand-side management can make our system ready for the large-scale use of renewable energy.

It’s the first time a working partnership has been created by leading businesses to help modernise and relieve the pressure on the UK’s electricity system. Businesses have never aspired to transform our energy system so profoundly before. By working together to change how they use electricity, by making this visible to the world and by encouraging others to do the same, they can showcase the potential of demand-side management to reshape our energy system and catalyse change.

By Gemma Adams, Head of Innovation, Forum for the Future

1. October 2013. Powercut Britain: Are the lights about to go out for UK business? http://www.meuc.co.uk/userFiles/meuc_report.pdf
2. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/505218/IC_Energy_Report_web.pdf
3. https://www.ofgem.gov.uk/gas/retail-market/market-review-and-reform/smarter-markets-programme


Aggregate Industries help to keep the UK’s lights on

Asphalt Mixing Plant, Aggregate Industries

Donna Hunt, Head of Sustainability at Aggregate Industries, explains how her company is helping to keep the UK’s lights on, and why it is taking full advantage of the possibilities of demand side response (DSR).

Aggregate Industries is well known in the industry for being pioneers in the use of new technology and we’re always looking for ways to reduce our energy consumption and costs, and at the same time reduce our emissions. When we found out that DSR can help us do all these things – and generate revenue – we became very interested.

For the last few years we have been working with Open Energi to identify those activities of ours that fit the dynamic frequency response management profile. In other words, activities where we can safely automate the switching on or off of power – without affecting quality – in order to help balance the grid.

We started with bitumen tanks which heat bitumen for the making of asphalt for road surfaces. We have found that turning off the heaters in these tanks to respond to short-term fluctuations in electricity supply and demand doesn’t affect the quality of our product at all.

Bitumen is stored at between 150-180 degrees centigrade and the heaters on modern, well-maintained and insulated bitumen tanks can be switched off for over an hour with only a one-degree change in temperature. The tanks’ temperature bands act as control parameters; if the temperature is within those bands switching can take place automatically, or if not, nothing happens.

The equipment uses frequency signals as a cue, which are an instantaneous indicator of the balance between electricity supply and demand. National Grid has to maintain frequency at 50hz to balance supply and demand, so if it falls below 50hz our plant is automatically switched off if conditions are right; if it rises above 50hz, it is switched on.

The average duration of a switch is less than five minutes. Essentially the intervention is invisible and has no impact on our operations, yet we are providing a valuable service to National Grid 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We are paid for being available, regardless of how often our tanks are required to respond.

Open Energi’s Dynamic Demand technology was initially fitted to bitumen tanks at 40 asphalt plants around the country. It’s proved so successful that we have since extended it to quarry pumps at two quarries, and we are actively reviewing other sites, operations and equipment to identify further activities to bring into the scheme.

Embracing this innovative technology has helped us deliver around 3.6MW of flexible demand for the grid. In terms of emissions that is over 40,000 tonnes of CO2 saved over five years. By 2020, we expect to be able to free up 5MW of flexible capacity for National Grid; equating to 11,380 tonnes of carbon savings per year.

And thanks to Open Energi’s metering and monitoring equipment, we now benefit from increased visibility of equipment performance. For example, data which can help to identify where the bitumen tanks may be inefficient or not running correctly, which has in turn helped us to improve maintenance, identify best practice and achieve more energy savings.

We are proud of our role in pioneering intelligent demand response and we see it as an important part of our corporate and social responsibility to share the benefits of this emerging technology and encourage others to take up the opportunity.

As National Grid has signalled via its Power Responsive campaign, businesses are uniquely placed to pave the way for a more flexible, responsive energy system, but to realise the full potential of demand side response, smart technologies must become a normal part of energy management.

By acting together, large energy users can help transform our energy system into one that is more efficient and sustainable. To help spread this message we have joined the Living Grid network, a peer to peer movement which aims to demonstrate what is possible. In doing so, we aim to help create a positive change in the energy system that extends beyond the borders of our own organisation.

Webinar: Living Grid – calling pioneering organisations

Sunshine through tree tops - green energy

The Living Grid is a movement that aims to create a new approach to our energy system.

On the 18th May at 11.30am, Forum for the Future and Open Energi are co-hosting a webinar as part of Energy Live Online, to share more details about the Living Grid and invite businesses to participate.

Pioneer organisations, including United Utilities, Sainsbury’s, Aggregate Industries and Tarmac, are working together, and calling for others to join them, to create an electricity network that takes inspiration from nature to deliver, store and use electricity in the most optimal way possible.

This will make our system more compatible with the abundant renewable sources of energy around us, helping us achieve a 1.5-degree world and making our energy system ready for the future.

Is your organisation a pioneer?

Can you help drive the Living Grid movement forwards?

Join this webinar to find out:

  • What the Living Grid is
  • How your organisation can get involved
  • What the benefits are for you


Martin Hunt, Head of Networks and Partnerships, Forum for the Future

David Hill, Business Development Director, Open Energi

To register, please click on the ATTEND button in the panel below.

We need to draw our future energy from a living system

Future Energy System

Nature may be the most obvious place to look for design principles for future grids, says Giles Bristow, Director of Programmes at Forum for the Future.

We have come to depend on the global energy system for our very survival – keeping populations wherever they are in the world at temperatures that sustain life and feeding them with a carbon-hungry, intensive agricultural production system. But this necessary life-support system is becoming ever more complex and divorced from its negative impacts on individuals, society and the environment – acutely demonstrated through a rapidly changing climate. Quite simply, this manufactured ‘human system’, created to enable modern life, is, by its very operation, directly and massively undermining the health of the planet and future of the people who live on it.

For a while now at Forum for the Future, we have been taking a systems approach to creating change and, in particular, in energy. We recognise that energy systems underpin and drive the global economy, which in turn nests within a social world that cannot be extruded from the environment. In other words, all human systems are part of the larger ecological system.

We have been designing a strategy for multiple interventions in these systems – looking for ways to create or encourage ambitious shifts so that energy generation, transmission and consumption all become more sustainable, quickly! Our vision is a system that is powered by non-polluting renewables, and that provides people at home and in their work with equal and affordable access to the energy they use in a super-efficient manner.

We are increasingly coming across emerging technologies and process innovations that have been inspired by nature: wind turbine blades shaped like humpback whale dorsal fins to keep spinning momentum in lulls; natural ventilation and heating systems inspired by the shape and design of termite mounds; solar photovoltaic cells designed on leaf patterns and mosaics. Product designers, architects and engineers are increasingly adopting innovation methods of biomimicry – the emulation of strategies and design by nature – to come up with incredible solutions.

As architect Michael Pawlyn puts it, “You could look at nature as being like a catalogue of products [which have all] benefited from a 3.8 billion year research and development period. Given that level of investment, it makes sense to use it!”

But what if we move on from thinking about individual solutions inspired by nature to entire energy systems drawing on the principles of living systems to meet human needs? Let’s adopt the seventh UN Sustainable Development Goal, ‘universal affordable clean energy’, as the challenge, and use biomimicry to rethink the system from scratch. This means taking the boundaries of the energy system as ‘the environment’, and then designing within it.

How would such a ‘living energy system’ look and operate? What innovative technologies would be required? What businesses and supply chains would be needed to deliver it? And how would the global economy reconfigure and adjust as a result?

If we take as our starting point the six ‘Life’s Principles’ put forward by leading consultancy Biomimicry 3.8, an energy system should be:

> Adaptable, for instance in the face of climate change and resource scarcity.

> Dynamic and so able to evolve, rather than locked into any one technology (crucial given the rate of technological advancement and the plummeting cost of renewables).

> Locally attuned: responsive and resilient.

> Life-friendly in its chemistry and not polluting.

> Resource efficient in both material and energy needs.

> Self-organising, so that it can develop and grow from the bottom up.

A picture emerges of a system that is radically different. If we assume that the critical outputs needed by humans are still heat, light and power (including for movement) – and now add digital computation – then it is how such a system delivers these vital services and its impacts on the environment and society that must change, to complement or even enhance natural processes.

Going a step further, might it be possible that the very existence of such a ‘living energy system’ will be the impetus for the rebalancing of our relationship with nature? How? Because the values and design principles that the system is based on will, in turn, be reflected in other socio-economic systems: global food production and consumption repurposed to provide sustainable nutrition, industrial ecology driving resource efficiency, property construction and city development to support intensive human habitation nested within (and not designing out) nature, and so on.

Each energy revolution has quite literally powered a paradigm shift in the global economy and has delivered (or perhaps been shaped by) new norms in the way our values are expressed at a global level. We have seen this each time, as we moved from total reliance on biomass, to coke, to coal, to the advent of electricity and liquid fuels …

What might be different this time is that we are under enormous pressure to accelerate the next shift in the energy system for our survival, and while there isn’t a toolkit for this, nature could well be the most appropriate and learned guide.

So, I would like to invite you to join us in this exercise of imagining what an energy system designed on biomimicry principles might look like and how we might usher it in.

We have started with a project at Forum for the Future called The Living Grid. Not wishing to bite off more than we could chew, we are limiting our thinking to just the UK’s electricity transmission system and have decided to focus on taking inspiration from nature to design a more flexible, responsive, low-carbon grid.

We are working with Open Energi’s technology and the physical assets of Sainsbury’s, Aggregate Industries, Tarmac and United Utilities to create a system that very subtly flexes its demand for electricity to help balance the grid. This avoids the need to fire up standby fossil fuel generation when demand and supply are out of step, perhaps because of a lull in offshore wind, or because a riveting episode of East Enders has come to an end. Flexibility and dynamism are key characteristics not valued in our current energy system, but crucial to the security in the dynamic equilibrium achieved by ecosystems.

We want to show that there are new ways of solving system issues, such as balancing demand and providing flexibility (cheaply), but also raise the bigger question that it might be the principles and values upon which the system has been created that need to shift. That perhaps nature – with 3.8 billion years of evolutionary practice and the most complex of all systems – may be the most obvious place to look for system design principles.

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Living Energy.